Different explanations are mutually compatible: Structural, evolutionary and biocognitive

A few months ago, I was invited to give an online presentation to the Center for Linguistic Sciences of Beijing Normal University (my host was Chia-Jung Pan). This blogpost summarizes the main points of the talk (based on the talk handout; there is also a video of the talk, with questions, on Bilibili). The title of the talk was: “Structural, evolutionary and biocognitive explanations are mutually compatible”.

The purpose of the talk was to emphasize that there is no deep reason for ideological divisions in linguistics: we do not need to have “commitments” or “tenets” (e.g. Lakoff 1991; Goldberg 2003); we do not need to decide “what linguistics is about” (e.g. Hornstein 2019); we do not need to “subscribe to” a framework and defend it; and we do not need to perpetuate diverging terminologies. All these things are a reality, but they are not necessary. Different methodological choices (“approaches”) are more compatible with each other than many people think. For the purposes of this talk, I distinguished three types of explanations:

Structural explanations: Language systems are more orderly than one may think at first glance, and we can often reduce apparent variety to deeper regularities.

Evolutionary explanations: In diachronic change, speakers often select variants that increase the fitness or utility of their language system – language systems are (to a significant extent) the product of evolutionary adaptation.

Biocognitive explanations: Language systems are constrained by being acquired by humans with their particular biological properties. Not every logically possible language is attested, so innate biocognitive constraints can explain observed limits on worldwide diversity.

We may thus want to distinguish (i) structural linguistics, (ii) functional-adaptive linguistics, and (iii) biolinguistics, but only if these are not thought of as “competing ideologies” (or “schools of thought”) – the approaches should be complementary. Competition makes sense between competing hypotheses (= competing claims), and perhaps between competing methods (though methods are often complementary, too), but not between competing ideologies (let alone competing “camps”). Next I give concrete examples of different kinds of explanations, and then I say why they are not mutually incompatible.

(I) Structural explanations

Structural explanations reduce apparent variety to deeper regularities. Examples come from vowel systems, word order in German, and differential object marking in Sakha.

This order is quite rigid in German, and it can be described by setting up an abstract template:

[prefield  – P1 – middle field  –  nonfinite verb  – P2]

With this abstract template, the number of rules that we need can be simplified: arguments or adverbials can occur in the prefield or the middle field; subordinators occur in P1 and preclude a prefield; and the finite verb (singt, hat) occurs in P1 unless this field is filled by a subordinator. Otherwise the finite verb occurs in P2. (This “field template” goes back to structuralist work on German in the 1930s.)

(C) Sakha differential object marking

The patient object in Sakha (a Turkic language) is accusative-marked, but only when it is definite (Baker 2015), as seen in (5). This corresponds to a word order difference: a definite (and accusative-marked) object precedes an adverb, as seen in (6).








Baker (2015: 126) says that this is because the domain for accusative case assignment is the TP, and when the object is not moved out of the VP in (6a), it is not accessible for case. This may be seen as a “more modern” way of describing syntax than the German field template, but its essence is that it is a kind of structural explanation that generalizes over certain facts by proposing an abstract pattern.

(II) Evolutionary explanations

Evolutionary explanations say that language systems are (to a significant extent) the product of evolutionary adaptation. Let us look at vowel systems and differential object marking again.

(A) vowel systems: Symmetric triangular vowel systems can be explained as making optimal use of the vowel space (dispersion theory: Liljencrants & Lindblom 1972; Gordon 2016). Moreover, vowel systems are constantly recreated through diachronic change, as is illustrated by changes from Latin to French:

                                    Latin                French

            u > y                mūrus              [myʀ] mur       ‘wall’

            a > ɛ                carus               [ʃɛʀ] cher        ‘dear’

            e > a                tectum              [twa] toit         ‘roof’

            o > u               collum             [ku] cou          ‘neck’

            e > i                 lēctum              [li] lit               ‘read’

These changes tend to be of a kind that yields a well-dispersed vowel space (cf. Martinet 1955: Économie des changement phonétiques) – in other words, the changes are adaptive, even though they cannot be said to be directed.

(B) differential object marking: Object marking of definite or animate objects can be explained as making optimal use of role-marking, because those types of nominals that are least likely to be objects are marked (Bossong 1991). The changes are of a kind that yields such systems, e.g.

Latin ad ‘to’                            >          Spanish a

Latin per ‘though’                   >          Romanian pe

Russian -a (genitive)               >          -a (accusative)

German -en (stem marker)      >          -en (accusative)

Chinese 把 ‘take‘               >          (acc. preposition)

Again, we can say that the changes are adaptive. “Evolutionary explanations” have also been called “functional explanations” – but I prefer “evolutionary” or “adaptive”, because they operate at the level of language change (like biological evolution). There is no claim of synchronic language-particular “functionality” – synchronically, languages often show nonfunctional or dysfunctional features. The functional-adaptive factors explain general trends, not necessarily language-particular features.

(III) Biocognitive explanations

Innate biocognitive constraints can explain observed limits on worldwide diversity. Specifically: languages are constrained by formal universals (architectures of grammar and types of rules) and substantive universals (specific features and categories) (Chomsky 1965) (it has also been said that they are constrained by an innate blueprint https://dlc.hypotheses.org/2462 for grammar). This can again be illustrated by the three kinds of phenomena.

(A) vowel systems: They are possibly constrained by the universal features of Chomsky & Halle (1968), which all phonological systems are said to be made up of:

“That there must be a rich system of a priori properties – of essential linguistic universals – is fairly obvious… general linguistic theory might propose, as substantive universals, that the lexical items of any language are assigned to fixed categories such as noun, verb and adjective, and that phonetic transcriptions must make use of a particular, fixed set of phonetic features… We will be concerned with the theory of “universal phonetics,” that part of general lingusitics that specifies the class of possible phonetic representations” (Chomsky & Halle 1968: 4)

(B) differential object marking: This is possibly constrained by a substantive set of universally possible case assignment rules, as in Baker’s (2015) theory of “dependent case”. (The rule formulations in (7) are very much simplified; see my discussion in Haspelmath 2018 https://zenodo.org/record/3464933).

(7)  a.  High case in TP (clause) is ergative.

 b. Low case in TP (clause) is accusative.

c. High case in VP is dative.

d. High case in NP is genitive (there is no low case in NP).

e. Unmarked case is nominative-absolutive.

(C) German word order: Again, word order is possibly constrained by universal functional hierarchies (CP – IP – VP) and constraints on movement (cf. Haider 2010). Then we can say that the German prefield is really the specifier of CP, and that the finite verb is in the C position (“complementizer”). The latter is an odd claim (because C is a category, not an abstract “position”), but this analysis has been widely proposed. The hope is thus that the general “CP – IP – VP” system is innate and thus explains German word order.

Why these three types of explanations are not incompatible

After illustrating these three types of explanations, using three types of phenomena, I will now say why I do not regard them as mutually incompatible.

(i) Structural and biocognitive: In generative grammar, both types of explanation are pursued, and the idea is that the structural building blocks are part of the innate grammar blueprint (“Universal Grammar”). So they are obviously compatible. But they are logically independent of each other, and many generative linguists do not want to commit themselves to rich innate grammatical knowledge (especially since Chomsky 2005, who reversed his earlier position and no longer claims that the structural building blocks are innate (cf. Fitch 2016; and this earlier blogpost).

(ii) Structural and evolutionary:  In general, structural description is compatible with evolutionary explanation – and indeed, the two are obviously complementary. We need description before we can move on to evolutionary explanation. Consider vowel systems again: A vowel system like /i e a o u/ can be reduced to three binary features: [±high], [±low], [±back], as I noted above. One can propose an elegant description in terms of binary features, and at the same time advance an evolutionary explanation. The same applies to differential object marking (4B above), but I do not know any evolutionary explanation of German word order – this is one of the many random patterns that languages exhibit.

A structural explanation answers the question: Why do speakers talk the way they do? (because they have internalized a certain language system). An evolutionary explanation answers the question: Why are grammatical systems the way they are? (because certain systems are optimal, and adaptive change favours optimal systems). These are why questions at different, compatible levels.

In a sense, both questions are explanatory/theoretical: The first leads us to propose particular theories (p-theories), and the second leads us to general theories (g-theories) (see Haspelmath 2021b). Each grammatical description is a theory of the language (“A grammar of the language L is essentially a theory of L.” (Chomsky 1957: 49). Thus, it makes no sense to contrast theoretical and descriptive linguistics – descriptive linguistics (which describes language structures) is usually a theoretical enterprise (unless it has applied goals) (it also doesn’t make sense to contrast “theory” vs. “typology”).

(iii) Evolutionary and biocognitive: Finally, I claim that functional-evolutionary and biocognitive explanations are compatible. Many authors have framed the approaches taken by different linguists in terms of “functionalism” vs. “formalism” (e.g. Newmeyer 1998; Thomas 2020) and indeed, we observe almost disjoint communities of scholars, with different conferences, journals, and so on. However, I would like to claim that these groups of scholars are divided merely by habits: by different notations and scientific styles, as well as different “hunches”.

The approaches taken by them would be conceptually incompatible if they were committed to radical positions, e.g. if “functionalists” insisted that all general aspects of language structures can be explained by functional-adaptive forces, and that the difference between humans and other species has nothing to do with domain-specific capacities. Or if the “generativists” presupposed that all general aspects of language structures can be explained by innate grammatical knowledge, and that functional-adaptive forces play no role in language structures.

But these are caricatures, and in reality, most functionalists do accept that we are quite far away from explaining everything in functional-adaptive terms (and many of them also use complex formalisms). In addition, all generativists do accept that some structural properties of languages are functionally motivated (and many of them even think that very little is innate; Chomsky 2005). Thus, in each domain, it is an empirical question what the best explanation is – innate knowledge or functional-adaptive forces.

In fact, we find very similar complementarities in biology and linguistics. In biology, some properties of organisms are explained by the makeup of DNA (its discovery was a major breakthrough) – BUT this has not made evolutionary-adaptive explanations superfluous: Organisms are constrained both by DNA and by evolutionary adaptation.

In linguistics, some properties of languags are explained by innate knowledge (UG) (its discovery would be a major breakthrough) – BUT this has not made evolutionary-adaptive explanations superfluous. Languages are constrained both by UG and by functional adaptation.

Competing claims: Differential object marking again

I said earlier that there should be no competing ideologies or camps (because we are all scientists), but there can of course be competing claims (= competing hypotheses).

For example, there are (at least) two competing possibilities for explaining differential object marking patterns, like those in (8)-(10).

A functional-adaptive hypothesis says that object marking occurs when it is most needed, namely with definite and/or animate nominals (which are less likely to be on object position) (this explanation was formulated clearly by Bossong 1991, but he built on earlier work). A biocognitive explanation (Baker’s “dependent case” theory mentioned above) says that accusative case is assigned when the object NP is “close enough” (in a specific way) to the subject NP. Thus, in Sakha and Chinese, the object moves out of the VP and hence gets “closer” to the subject NP, so that it can be assigned case.

The functional-adaptive explanation actually has a much wider scope and allows us to understand the universal finding in (10) (see Haspelmath 2021a).

(10) Differential object marking universal: If a language has an asymmetric split in object marking depending on some prominence scale, then the special marker occurs on the referentially prominent P-argument.

This applies to six different prominence scales (animate > inanimate, definite > indefinite, 1st/2nd > 3rd), and it is based on the general observation that in language use, referentially prominent arguments tend to be agents, while nonprominent arguments tend to be patients.

The biocognitive explanation (Baker 2015) also has wider scope because it allows us to understand why definite nominals show differential accusative case when they occur in a different position from indefinite nominals (cf. Sakha in (6) above, and Chinese in (9)). However, there are several ways in which this theory is more limited: (i) Baker (2015) does not extend his explanation to Chinese – he wants to limit it to “case marking”, not to all kinds of markers that flag nominals (for reasons that did not become quite clear to me). (ii) When the differential marking is conditioned by animacy (as in Spanish), Baker’s biocognitive explanation does not seem to make any prediction. (iii) Even when differential object marking is conditioned by definiteness, it may not be associated with a clear positional difference, as in Hebrew:

I conclude that the evolutionary-functional explanation has much better empirical coverage than the biocognitive-generative explanation, and moreover, it appeals to highly general explanatory factors: efficiency of coding (“marking occurs where it is most needed”) is merely a special case of efficiency of action (I elaborate on this in my 2021 paper on coding asymmetries and predictability).

In general, functional-adaptive explanations are often superior, so why do linguists keep pursuing biocognitive explanations of the generative type? I have long thought about this and would like to suggest an answer: Because they conflate structural and biocognitive linguistics. The problem is not that for ideological reasons, they reject functional-adaptive explanations – the problem is that they do not properly distinguish structural explanations (p-linguistics) and one type of general explanations (g-linguistics). I elaborate on this in the next section.

The conflation of structural and biocognitive linguistics

To recapitulate in a simplified way, I said above that (i) structural explanations explain speaker behaviour (“language description”); (ii) evolutionary explanations explain general trends (“why languages are the way they are”); and (iii) biocognitive explanations explain the differences between species (“why chimpanzees don’t talk”).

Now we see that many linguists conflate structural and biocognitive explanations, assuming that structural explanations must make use of universal building blocks. For example, Aissen (2003: 439) said in her famous paper on differential object marking:

“Optimality Theory (OT) provides a way, I believe, to reconcile the underlying impulse of generative grammar to model syntax in a precise and rigorous fashion with a conception of differential object marking (DOM) which is based on prominence scales. The purpose of the present paper is to develop an approach to this phenomenon within OT which is formal and at the same time expresses the functional-typological understanding of DOM.”

Now what does Aissen mean here by (i) “modeling syntax” (ii) in a “precise and rigorous fashion” and (iii) with a “formal approach”? Aissen seem to mean a “formal framework” that is the same for all languages – the sort of notation that is often taught in syntax textbooks. But it can be the same for all languages only if the framework is thought to be innate  – and if the framework is innate, then it also provides an explanation for some of the limits on languages (this is the Principles & Paramaters framework, e.g. Roberts 1996; Baker 2001).

We see this very clearly in Aissen’s Optimality Theory notation:

All the constraints and many of the constraint rankings are thought to be innate – this makes it possible to both describe all languages in the same framework, and to offer this framework as an explanation.

However, even though this reflects widespread practice, there are very good reasons why one cannot (or should not) conflate structural frameworks and claims about innateness in this way. First, it is biologically implausible that rich descriptive frameworks should be innate (Chomsky 2005; Berwick & Chomsky 2016). Second, Aissen (2003) wants to “capture” the insights of economy explanations, but in her conflating approach, there is no link between economy/efficiency and her constraint rankings (I discussed this briefly in §4.5 of my 2008 paper). Third, while different languages often show intriguing similarities, there are often many differences in detail (e.g. “definiteness” is subtly different in Sakha, Chinese and Hebrew) – these need to be described anyway, and the coarse-grained general categories are not sufficient for this. Fourth, functional-evolutionary explanations often have a disparate range of effects – for example, efficiency of argument coding affects objects, subjects, recipients, patients, and a range of different prominence scales (Haspelmath 2021a); these cannot possibly be captured by a single innate framework.

Concluding remarks

We all agree that linguists must describe (or “model”) the structures of languages in a “precise and rigorous fashion”. In this sense, we are all structuralists (see this blogpost). And unless we concentrate on applied goals, we are all theoretical linguists (Haspelmath 2021b).

And we all agree that formal methods of different kinds are often useful for linguistics. But due to a complicated sociological process, the term has become associated with Chomskyan generative linguistics (see also this blogpost). And we all agree that (i) some aspects of language structures are due to efficiency (e.g. abbreviations such as “MPI” for “Max Planck Institute”), and (ii) human minds and chimpanzee minds differ in ways that gives humans language.

So we really all agree that we need (i) structural explanations (formal models of syntax); (ii) evolutionary explanations (adaptive accounts of efficiency effects), and (iii) biocognitive explanations (explanations of species differences); and that these three must be mutually compatible. So is there an ideological difference between a functionalist and a generativist? No, the difference primarily consists in scholarly traditions, and in “hunches”. The functionalist’s hunch is that the precise nature of the formal description is probably not very important for understanding grammar. The generativist’s hunch is that considerations of functional efficiency are probably not very important for understanding grammar.

For differential object marking (DOM), I have argued that functional efficiency is very important, because it explains many cross-linguistic tendencies (Haspelmath 2021a). But: I do not have any particular “commitments” or “tenets” (Lakoff 1991); I do not “subscribe to” any particular framework (Haspelmath 2010); and I do not say that “linguistics is about languages” (Comrie 1978) rather than universal cognition (Hornstein 2019). Linguistics is about both of these.

Given that scholars are humans, and humans live in traditions, we will probably continue to work in such traditions. But we should not confuse our traditions and hunches with competing ideologies.


Aissen, Judith. 2003. Differential object marking: Iconicity vs. economy. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 21(3). 435–483.

Baker, Mark C. 2001. The atoms of language. New York: Basic Books.

Baker, Mark C. 2015. Case: Its principles and parameters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berwick, Robert C. & Chomsky, Noam. 2016. Why only us: Language and evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bossong, Georg. 1991. Differential object marking in Romance and beyond. In Kibbee, Douglas & Wanner, Dieter (eds.), New analyses in Romance linguistics, 143–170. Amsterdam: Benjamins. (https://www.rose.uzh.ch/dam/jcr:ffffffff-c23e-37d9-0000-00006e1a9200/Bossong_80.pdf)

Chomsky, Noam A. 1957. Syntactic structures. ’s-Gravenhage: Mouton.

Chomsky, Noam A. 1965. Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam A. 2005. Three factors in language design. Linguistic Inquiry 36(1). 1–22. (doi:10.1162/0024389052993655)

Chomsky, Noam A. & Halle, Morris. 1968. The sound pattern of English. New York: Harper & Row.

Comrie, Bernard. 1978. Linguistics is about languages. Studies in the Linguistic Sciences 8(2). 221–236.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh. 2016. Reinventing linguistics – again (Review article of “What kind of creatures are we?”, by Noam Chomsky). Inference: International Review of Science 2(3). (https://inference-review.com/article/reinventing-linguistics-again)

Goldberg, Adele E. 2003. Constructions: A new theoretical approach to language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7(5). 219–224.

Gordon, Matthew Kelly. 2016. Phonological typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haider, Hubert. 2010. The syntax of German. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Framework-free grammatical theory. In Heine, Bernd & Narrog, Heiko (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis, 341–365. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2021a. Role-reference associations and the explanation of argument coding splits. Linguistics 59(1). 123–174. (doi:10.1515/ling-2020-0252)

Haspelmath, Martin. 2021b. General linguistics must be based on universals (or nonconventional aspects of language). Theoretical Linguistics (to appear). (https://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/005158)

Hornstein, Norbert. 2019. The stupendous success of the Minimalist Program. In Kertész, András & Moravcsik, Edith & Rákosi, Csilla (eds.), Current approaches to syntax: A comparative handbook. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Lakoff, George. 1991. Cognitive versus generative linguistics: How commitments influence results. Language and Communication 11(1/2). 53–62.

Liljencrants, Johan & Lindblom, Björn. 1972. Numerical simulation of vowel quality systems: The role of perceptual contrast. Language 48(4). 839–862.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1998. Language form and language function. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Roberts, Ian. 1996. Comparative syntax. London: Edward Arnold.

Thomas, Margaret. 2020. Formalism and functionalism in linguistics: The engineer and the collector. New York: Routledge.

Cite this blog post
Martin Haspelmath (2021, September 4). Different explanations are mutually compatible: Structural, evolutionary and biocognitive. Diversity Linguistics Comment. Retrieved May 31, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/nswe

12 thoughts on “Different explanations are mutually compatible: Structural, evolutionary and biocognitive

  1. [A comment from Aleksandrs Berdicevskis, originally blocked by a spam filter]

    This is an excellent and insightful overview!

    Two things caught my eye.

    One is that I am not sure I find the parallel with biology entirely convincing.

    > “Organisms are constrained *both* by DNA and by evolutionary adaptation.”

    Yes, but isn’t the makeup of DNA (to a large extent) a result of evolutionary adaptation? And how else can organisms adapt if not through changes in DNA?

    > Languages are constrained *both* by UG and by functional adaptation.

    Let’s assume that this is true and that UG does exist. The picture then is quite different from the one in biology. UG must be a result of the biological evolution of human brain, something that exists because *humans* adapt to the environmental pressures. Functional adaptation, however, is cultural evolution, where *languages* adapt to the environmental pressures (most of them created by the properties of the human brain, cf. Christiansen & Chater 2008 “Language as shaped by the brain”). So there is indeed a dualism, an opposition that I fail to see in the “DNA vs evolution” example above.

    A related, but somewhat different thought is that all “evolutionary” (aka “functional”) explanations are to an extent biocognitive: they assume that when languages adapt to something (e.g. by developing DOM), this something is always at least partly shaped by the (domain-general) properties of our brain (e.g. the limited ability to infer from context who is doing what to whom). These brain properties must also be the outcome of some evolutionary processes, but explaining them probably means going beyond the scope of linguistics.

    I am not sure whether the reverse is also true, whether all “biocognitive” explanations are to an extent evolutionary.

    The second thing is “Thus, in each domain, it is an empirical question what the best explanation is – innate knowledge or functional-adaptive forces.” This implies that everything that cannot be explained by the cultural evolution of language (and that’s definitely a lot!) must be assumed to be innate (domain-specific?) knowledge, and I suspect many would not subscribe to that.

    All that, however, does not change the conclusions, and I totally agree with the optimistic “different traditions, not necessarily different ideologies” view!

  2. I agree with what you say, but I think the difficulty lies in applying it to actual practice and then get some kind of agreement. You write for example:

    “the approaches should be complementary. Competition makes sense between competing hypotheses (= competing claims), and perhaps between competing methods (though methods are often complementary, too), but not between competing ideologies (let alone competing “camps”).”

    How should we determine whether people just have competing claims, or whether they are doing complementary things?

    First, take for example a Chomskyan generative analysis of some phenomenon, which uses the whole generative Chomskyan machinery with hierarchical trees, functional heads, movement, traces, blocking, etc. etc. etc. Is this just another way of saying the same thing as a functional explanation of a similar phenomenon? Or is this a competing method or claim? Or is this a complementary analysis? In your contribution you suggest that such analyses can be like (traditional) structural analyses, and therefore not competing hypotheses:

    “This may be seen as a “more modern” way of describing syntax than the German field template, but its essence is that it is a kind of structural explanation that generalizes over certain facts by proposing an abstract pattern.”

    Ok, maybe people agree on the idea that both are structural explanations, and in this case one can perhaps translate an explanation of one theory into the language of another theory. But considering your other remarks about conflating structural claims with claims about innateness you do not seem to think that any Chomskyan generative analysis can be translated into a non-generative functional analysis. Is it possible to get agreement on that?

    Second, a Chomskyan generative analysis and explanation may try to explain things in terms of abstract rules or structures, whereas functional linguists will explain the same things in terms of evolutionary (diachronic) terms (these are not the type of examples you have chosen to discuss in your contribution). Can both explanations exist at the same time and both be true? And if not, how do we determine objectively which explanation is better than the other? Is it possible to get agreement on that?

    In sum: I read your contribution as an incentive to focus more on what people have in common, how we work in different ways on similar things, and by doing so complement one another in linguistics, which is of course a very good thing. But how can we get people to become acquainted with each other’s theoretical languages, and is it realistic to believe that we agree on what is a competing claim, what is a complementary claim and when things are “conflated” and when not?

    • Yes, there are all kinds of practical problems, which I don’t know how to address. Here my concern was with the higher-level issues. Maybe it will have a positive effect to point out that there is more agreement (at least in theory) than it sometimes seems. In any event, it will be the younger generation that will bring about the change.

  3. I agree with almost everything you say, but there is one methodological advantage to sticking to one set of commitments (whichever it is). One could already object to basically any approach in linguistics that it is unfalsifiable – you have made that claim about some approaches yourself, if I am not mistaken. If we now embrace the fact that probably there is soimething right in any approach of seeing language, be it structural, evolutionary or biocognitive, this problem becomes immense: we will have a wealth of explanations for any phenomenon, including phenomena that do not occur at all.

    Restrictiveness therefore is also a scientific value. We should make sure to build a view of linguistics that is broad enough to contain all kinds of explanations, but narrow enough to be able to adhere to that value.

  4. What does it mean when we say that “vowel systems can be reduced to three binary features: [+/- high], [+/- low], [+/- back]”?
    My naive interpretation of this statement is that all vowel systems can be characterized by just these three binary features. But 3 binary features can be combined in just 2^3 = 8 ways. But some languages have vowel systems with more than 8 contrastive vowels qualities. For example, English and German are typically considered to be such languages. Does this not mean that these 3 binary features do not actually suffice to describe the vowel systems of all languages?
    A more traditional analysis would be to say that vowel qualities can be characterized by their position in three “dimensions”: height, frontness/backness, and rounding. Each of these is inherently a continuous variable. Different languages dividing up the three-dimensional vowel space in different ways, and it is not clear if there is a single, universal set of phonetic features that can capture all language internal phonological contrasts. However, it is possible to create comparative concepts for the purpose of cross-language comparison, by dividing up the vowel space into purely phonetically defined regions. [As a comparative concept, there is no claim that there is a unique “correct” partitioning of the vowel space; various partitions are equally permissible, and it is a matter of research to determine which tend to be most useful.]

    • By the way, “reducing” a set of 5 independent elements {a e i o u} to 5 combining elements {high low back + -} is not even a reduction in the number of entities, and does also much worse in the number of types of elements presumed — instead of one category “vowels” we now have three, “vowels”, “features” and “values of features”. Featural phonology needs quite a bit more motivation than just this, e.g. nothing in this argument establishes why it’s specifically /i/ and /u/ that we are modelling as uniquely sharing a feature [+high]. Starting just from a list of elements, it would be equally simple to propose any other number of features, like [+early] (occurs early in the alphabet), [+circle] (is circle-shaped), [+io] (a feature shared by /i/ and /o/), which yield the following analysis:
      /a/ [+early -circle -io]
      /e/ [+early +circle -io]
      /i/ [-early -circle +io]
      /o/ [-early +circle +io]
      /u/ [-early -circle -io]
      I hope it is clear that it would be absurd to argue that this, too, is a good analysis just because it allows analysing five entities in terms of three features. (And I also hope this is all obvious to most people reading anyway.)

      The real reason why we would generally subscribe to an analysis that looks something like this, even if we were only looking at a single language that shows no especial phonological activity of a feature like [+back] or [+low], is that we can get a lot of features as basically pre-given by articulatory phonetics, an essentially “biocognitive” theory (that is also nicely enough amenable to independent empirical study). I could perhaps even claim that featural phonology is, thus, not a structural explanation. But more worryingly maybe: how many other “structural” explanations are similarly also actually anchored in some non-structural explanation or the other?

      • Thanks, this is a valid point. Maybe I should have given a clearer example. It seems to me that in phonology, too, we oftn find purely structural generalizations, but indeed, the vowel features (and the segmental features more generally) typically have substantive (phonetic) content.

  5. I largely agree with this, although I think that structural explanations do require theoretical commitments to some degree, in the form of assumptions needed to get anywhere. One can perhaps regard these simultaneously as like a) combinations of headlamps, prybars etc for digging into obscure places b) plastic buckets, bookshelf boards and other random items that a toddler might use to build something to climb up onto to see what was on a high shelf.

    • Yes, one needs assumptions for any kind of scientific endeavor (or any kind of human endeavor) – but I wouldn’t want to call them “commitments”. This word sounds like something that cannot be easily discarded. What you describe with your metaphors sounds more like what I call “methodological choices”. These can be discarded if it turns out to have advantages, just like I can replace one computer programme by another. I may use SPSS and Endnote out of laziness, but I wouldn’t say that I’m “committed” to them.

      • It is certainly possible to discard & swap them them, but takes too much effort to be done lightly (there are probably ordinary physical world toolkits that are similar), and relatively few people can use more than one with a reasonable degree of proficiency (Peter Sells with LFG and Minimalism would be an example).

  6. Interesting article, as usual! 🙂
    One question: you state that “A structural explanation answers the question: Why do speakers talk the way they do? (because they have internalized a certain language system)”.
    Is this meant to imply that all speakers of a language internalize the same language system?
    If so, that is somewhat questionable, because different internal rule systems can lead to the same surface sentences. (As can be seen when multiple syntactic analyses are available for a given sentence/rule, all of which seem to cover the data equally well).
    If we want to understand what people actually say, and how they learn to say it, I think that it is necessary to learn about developmental linguistics. In contrast, describing the structure of a language doesn’t necessarily explain anything in itself; rather, description serves to provide the data which is then explained by something else.

    • Yes, I agree: “different internal rule systems can lead to the same surface sentences”. So when I said that structural explanations answer a question about speaker behaviour, that was an abbreviation. I actually think that it’s MUCH harder to get at the internal systems of speakers than to describe the social system – but the reason all speakers behave in (much) the same way is that they create an internal system that corresponds closely to the social norms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.